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On Printing and The Dangers of the Digital Age

This post is about printing or rather attempting to print.  Just got back from spending three extremely productive days with Bob Korn, of Bob Korn Imaging. Bob is a “master printer” for lack of a better term, who I first had contact with at the Center for Digital Imaging Art at Boston University.  I happened to be in the print room while Bob was working with one of his classes.  It was clear to me in about the first ten minutes that Bob worked from the print, not from the image on the screen.  (He uses that image for help, but it’s the print that matters.)  I thought to myself “I have to know more about how this works.”

In fact,  I had been increasingly frustrated by my printing outputs.  I was using the best tech, but I kept having the sense that I was getting worse, not better at this craft.  I remembered one of my favorite shots from a location folks in the Westborough and Grafton areas of Massachusetts will recognize, Tufts Veterinary School.  This shot was made around 2004 on an old, noisy Kodak 14NX camera with a lens that no one likes.  I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but it came out alright I thought.

The image has been well received even though it is quite simple, because I think people feel comfortable walking into the scene.  Especially if you’ve been there, you know what that feeling is like.  It’s not a dramatic, it is peaceful, quiet.  But what gives a picture that feeling?  What makes someone feel that they can just walk into the image?  It really has to be lifelike, which means getting the overall sense of lightness (or density as photographers describe it), contrast (not too much, which I am always guilty of), and color (interesting, but not too saturated), correct. All of the technology at our disposal makes it so easy to make images that are heavy, contrasty and highly saturated.  The work with Bob was about finding balance between visual stimulation and the natural experience of the image, of photography.

It’s hard to see this stuff on the darn computer screen, which starts out more contrasty that real life.  I realized as soon as I started Bob’s class (actually he helped me realize this), that I was relying too much on the tech, and not enough on the paper, the eye, and perhaps most importantly, my own gut reaction. Here are a few images, some already posted, that have evolved with my new workflow.  Again, on the screen, it may be hard to notice.  I can assure you that on paper, it’s not.

This image has been vexing to me since I took it last winter.  It was taken on a foggy day, in the late fall.  I’ve broken a bunch of rules here:  showing so much of an overcast sky and putting the subject smack in the middle of the frame.  I’ve tried every crop in the book.  This is pretty much as it was out of the camera, with just some adjustments in Photoshop levels to keep it light, a touch of contrast, and slight adjustment of the color cast.  Not much else.  Here are a couple more, also from the Quabbin:

This last one is a bit more saturated, but this is pretty much how it looked that day.  The reds in the foliage were extremely intense, but the fog added a lightness to the experience.  Fog doesn’t intensify contrast, it diminishes contrast.  Keeping the image light is the only way to keep the feeling intact.  Again, only three levels in photoshop were in play here, and I made no “local adjustments” (Photographer speak for making adjustments by “painting” them in with a brush, in Photoshop.)  Too many local adjustments create the risk that different parts of the image will start to separate and that the color transitions will not appear natural, something else I came to understand with Bob’s help.  Those of you who are self-educated printers, relying on books and DVD’s, will note just how much this advice contradicts the popular “wisdom” about the value of local corrections.

If you’re interested in improving your ability to print, particularly to make prints that give the viewer a natural invitation to enter the scene, I highly recommend Bob’s workshops, which you can read about on his website above.  You will find it transformative.  Bob’s also a very nice guy.  But don’t assume from that his critiques are not robust, they are.  But they are offered in the spirit of “let’s see if you can do better,” something every photographer needs.

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